The Way of Bladesmithing
Let's begin with the premise that what we make with our hands is the by product of a process and the process is the path we follow.
By process, I am not only referring to physical act of putting tools to materials, but also the mental and spiritual disciplines that are called upon. The tools work on both ends at the same time. They not only shape and form the materials, but by providing the direct connection for the maker they force the craftsman to learn about himself in the process.
There are various stages that all must go through. The beginning of learning a craft is a frustration of working with many unknown variables. The tools are unfamiliar, the body does not yet know how to hold and manipulate them, the mind does not know what to do with them or their potential. Gradually however, skills are acquired and the tools become a familiar interface with the materials.
When working, the mind must be totally involved in the process. If thoughts are anywhere but on the work, it shows immediately. Most tools are dangerous if you are not focused, they demand attention. Consciousness is forced to remain in the present. Every action requires thoughtful consciousness and every action shows directly in the work.
It is the effort to discipline the mind to attention that is most challenging. Because the work provides such direct feedback, it serves as frozen record of your consciousness. The work is also a receding horizon, the more you learn, the more you realize how much there is to learn. It is an inner journey expressed through the object that is created. While it is the process that involves the craftsman, the object, once complete, begins a journey on its own. We prize objects that reflect inner spirit and energy because of the affect they have upon us. They will move from hand to hand, imparting to each the energy it contains. This too is part of the process.
There are times, though rare, when you can become the tool. The conscious mind is involved with the work to the point where it loses the need for itself. Identity becomes totally involved with the process, there are no thoughts, but a simultaneous expression of work. Often inspiration comes when we have fully let go and we are open to receive.
I had guests the other night and the word discipline came up. We laughed because initially it was misunderstood. Discipline has a negative connotation when it is imposed on you from outside, but inner discipline is strength. Inner discipline provides solid ground on which to build.
Because the work is solitary, there is time for contemplation as well. In my early attempts to gain self discipline, I had to develop an objectivity about my thoughts. I found a vantage point from which I could observe myself and as I watched my thoughts rise up into consciousness, I began to realize that many were silly, inspired by memories or fantasies, but having no relevance to the present moment and the objective I was seeking to accomplish. The mind fires continually, first this direction then that. It can develop whole stories that spin on endlessly, some like nightmares recur and follow a dreary cycle that have an inevitable conclusion of depression, sadness, anger or defeat. To learn discipline, you have to disperse these thoughts, they are dreams and take you from your work. Allow the work to draw you back. Employ the mind or it will employ you.
A useful tool for centering the mind is the breath. I have heard the breath described as a silver thread that links you to the universe. If you purse your lips slightly and draw a slow deep breath, it is not hard to imagine the coolness of space and the silver light of the stars being drawn into your body. When you exhale, you imagine the energy passing through you and discharging into the ground beneath you. It has a calming and centering affect. This is ancient wisdom.
As you begin to control your mind, you realize that it is insatiable. It hungers for stimulation and will quickly divert to anything that distracts it. The modern world is a cacophony of sounds and images. We process so much information in the course of one day, an old timer would be dizzy from the effect of it, but we hunger for even more. The radio plays constantly, the TV is always on, we can not sit without reading, a telephone is glued to our ear, solitude is intolerable. This is a drug and it is used by others to control us. At the very least, it distracts the mind.
The day begins with sweeping the floor. A clean and organized shop promotes clear thinking. I have heard makers defend their cluttered benches by saying that they know right where everything is, but when you watch them work, they spend much of their time hunting for tools. Sweeping the floor is also about getting a fresh start to the day. The problems and difficulties of the previous day are put into perspective when the bench is cleared and the tools are back in place. Use this time to mentally lay out the work ahead. Sweep the mind free of clutter and focus on the day.
Sweeping the shop also covers maintenance of the tools and reorganizing. While this is not a daily routine, I try to set aside a period of time each week when I oil and grease, tighten and replace things that I notice need attention during the week. Wayne Valachovic, a good friend and knifemaker, talked about attuning yourself to the machines. When you are working, you are also listening to the sounds the tool is making. When there is a change or something is different, it is time to stop and uncover what the problem is and fix it. My tools are getting old too and every now and then they have to be rebuilt or repaired. At first, I felt this was a nuisance, but because I took the time to work on them, I understand them better now and have learned how they do their work and in that way, it has helped me do mine better too. A good tool, with care, should last a lifetime. It is also important to observe how different tasks are done, always looking for a more efficient way. Perhaps changing the placement of a tool will save a few steps and therefore time. This shows respect for your time and is an important part of the process.
Perhaps the highest maintenance tool in my shop is my body. It requires good food, regular exercise, and ample rest and will not work properly without it. I have been blessed with a wife who devotes herself as consciously to cooking as I do to bladesmithing. She has nourished me despite myself, put up with my emotional attachments to food and in the end, I have to admit that a good diet has changed me in very positive ways. GIGO, garbage in, garbage out, is the computer expression and it applies to nutrition as well. In the old days, the Japanese smith would purify himself before working on a sword. By eating simply, usually rice and tea, ritual bathing, abstinence and prayer, the smith would prepare himself. This regime gives a certain clarity to the mind and being that is as relevant today as it was seven hundred years ago.
The apprentice in a Japanese sword smithy spends the first year chopping charcoal. This work is basic preparation of materials and I am sure promotes self discipline. There were mornings in New Hampshire when it might have been possible to chop the propane, but what is necessary is to prepare the materials for the day's work. This will involve lighting the fire, cutting the steel, tacking the billets together and welding on handles. This is grunt work, it must be done and it is valuable time if you use it to train your mind. We have an interesting insight into our mind when we are faced with boring or repetitive work The first voice you hear is your weakest self. If you really want to know what you have to work on in yourself, listen objectively to the internal dialog. "Many experience, and a few know, that things go wrong when one's self is not disciplined." Hazrat Inayat Khan
This is probably a good time to tell a story. I have a friend who use to be a luthier. A lute is an early stringed instrument and quite difficult to build. He was a careful craftsman and I use to enjoy visiting his shop. I noticed on one of my visits that he had a contraption screwed to the wall. It was an arm and hand fashioned out of wood with a cord hanging down. When I asked what it was, he demonstrated by walking beneath it and pulling on the cord. The hand came down and gave him a pat on the back. All of the work you do is without benefit if you can't enjoy the process or take satisfaction from your accomplishments. The clearest guide you can have in life is joy.
Though this process of self discipline we are attempting to gain mastery over ourselves, but the next step is even more difficult. Once we are able to quiet our minds and focus our attention, it is then necessary to let go. While the preparatory steps of self discipline relied on developing will, the will has to be released and like a step into the void, we become empty. By letting go, we now are able to receive. This state is the source of inspiration and through it we are able to attune ourselves to the material and process. I believe this is how the ancient smiths were able to develop such refined work. It is within our reach as well.
"Polish the two fold spirit, heart and mind. sharpen the two fold gaze, perception and sight. When your spirit is not in the least clouded, clouds of bewilderment clear away. There is the true void." Musashi.
The craft of bladesmithing is non verbal. Working with the materials and the tools, it is quite easy to let go of the verbal dialogue. It is not necessary to translate every action into words or even structured thought. Thinking does not have to be linear. An interesting thing happens when you let go of language, first you are no longer bound by the subject-verb-object relationship. While this is a wonderful and necessary construct if you wish to communicate ideas, it often falls far short of accurately describing experiences that go beyond that relationship. Later you find that while you are working, you are capturing perfectly every moment of your consciousness. The blade is a frozen record of your experience, it needs no explanation because it exists and can speak for itself.
It is said that a man is only as broad as his broadest ideal, only as deep as his deepest ideal, only pure as his purest ideal. While the craft may be the path, the ideals that you hold are the guide. When I first began making knives, my ideal was to produce a sword that unsheathed, its light and brilliance would reveal the truth. Each must choose his own ideal however and once it is defined, it must be cherished and honored.
With each decision that we make, we are constantly reminded of our ideal. Our choice is to move closer to our ideal, we will progress when we do. It is interesting that as we progress, our ideals change as well. It is a receding horizon. What we learn is how to see more clearly, we become more sensitive to the inner journey.
The true ideal however is always hidden behind the man made ideal. " The ideal is a means, but its breaking is the goal." the Gayan.
I never thought of myself as a perfectionist because nothing I ever made was perfect. I realize now that it is in the striving for perfection that the journey lies. Each object you make can teach you something new. In it's materialization, you are bringing your ideal to fruition, but it is also in that interface between the spiritual reality and the material that the discovery lies. It is a journey, so if you take the next step you will progress. It is helpful to study your work and look for ways that you can improve. Take modest steps, refine what presents itself. Take satisfaction in your accomplishments, but accept with humility what you do not yet understand.
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